March 6, 2017
Well…another weekend is in the books, along with yet another journey! Okay I know I say this after every trip I embark on, but upon reflection, I honestly think that this past weekend in Belfast, Northern Ireland was my favorite. Not only did I love the city and it’s endless beauty, but on top of that every single other aspect of the trip went just swimmingly as well! I literally do not have a single thing to complain about for the whole 72 hours we were there, not that I should have anything to complain about anyways given my current situation…but you catch my drift. It was during this reflection of mine however, that I also realized I am not actually qualified to accurately rank the cities I have been to in the last couple of months…and I think I have been quite ignorant to even try.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts (something you’re probably getting sick of hearing by now) every place I visit is unique, memorable and beautiful in its very own way. I have thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated all of my journeys thus far. But I have come to realize something that I think is important to share with anyone who might one day be in my shoes. In reality, most of the traveling students do during study abroad programs is somewhat bias. I, clearly, am all for making the most of your time abroad and trying to experience as many places and see as many different things as possible. Being able to do so is one of the most valuable parts of the whole experience, at least in my opinion. But at the same time, I can pretty safely say that it’s virtually impossible to truly understand and appreciate the vastly unique and varied cultures and customs of the places you’ll go, with only a few days to spend there.
The more I travel, the more I realize that the opinion I hastily form about each destination is shaped by a whole host of other factors, completely unrelated to the destination itself. Rather than “ranking” cities and countries based on their culture and what they have to offer alone, as somebody qualified to do so would, I have instead been ranking my experience in those cities and countries. Although this sounds like one in the same, it really isn’t at all. Sure, I can walk around any city in Europe for a weekend and take in all the sights and attractions, but at the end of the day I am just another tourist. While tourist type activities do have their merit, considering attractions become attractions for a reason and should contribute to the opinions formed, they are only one side of the story. Aside from Galway, where I have spent a majority of my time and actually engaged with the community, I have really only experienced the other places I’ve been at a superficial level. Looking back, I recognize that a big part of what has determined my “favorite places” are not the places at all. It’s the group of people I traveled with. It’s the ease of actually getting to and from. It’s what my mood happened to be or what the weather was like. It’s how we liked our accommodation or the locals that we happened to engage with. These are the factors that have heavily contributed to my seemingly unfair rankings, all of which are extremely variable. My experience in Belfast has probably been the favorite thus far (although it is hard pick favorites considering I have had a great time everywhere), but I cannot say for certain that Belfast is any better than Brussels, Bruges, Amsterdam, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dublin or Wicklow. I have not spent enough time or seen enough of any of the above to make that judgment, and could return to any of them and have an entirely different experience that could completely alter my outlook.
Why do I bring this up? Because I think you have to take what you hear about or see in pictures from students abroad with a grain of salt. It is important to remember the possible bias that exists when talking to us about our travels, especially in regards to advice or suggestions on where to go and what to see. One students experience in a city may be completely different from another’s, and it is very unlikely that either is an expert on a place they spent 2 or 3 days attempting to explore. Be skeptical of anyone who claims that they are.
My intent here is not to downplay or criticize the incredible opportunities that studying abroad offers for students. Like I said, I am all for traveling and seeing as much of the world as possible while you can. By taking advantage of the ability to do so, I have a whole new outlook on life. But what I want to stress is that you keep an open mine while doing so. Don’t rely only on the opinions of others when deciding where you want to go and what you want to see. Do your own research, be aware of your own interests, and form your own opinions. On the flip side, once returned, be conscious of the fact that your opinion (while totally entitled to it) does not necessarily reflect the destination as a whole. You may have some valuable insight based on your trip that can be helpful to others, but do not let your own biases be the basis of discussion or advice. I’ve come to find out that the study abroad experience is totally and completely what you make of it, so make it your own…Oh the places you’ll go and the things you’ll see, all through a unique lens that’s different from me.